How to Go Green: Thanksgiving Day

thanksgiving day calendar november 27 photo

Image: Getty Images/Pamela Moore

[by Rachel Sarnoff]

With all the planning, cooking, and cleaning, the last thing you want to think about is greening your Thanksgiving, right? But this is the perfect time to reflect and reassess your holiday preparations with a nod to sustainability.

It's not as hard as you might think: Do you typically put a wreath on your door and a cut flower arrangement on your table? Try buying organic, or better yet, find living succulent wreaths for both. Is your centerpiece a turkey? Find a heritage breed, or consider a vegetarian alternative. Find out how to shop your local farmers' markets for your feast, and find recycled elements for your holiday decor.

We've broken it down to make Thanksgiving an easy, eco-friendly, and fun holiday for all involved. Follow our countdown and you can make an easy transition to a more sustainable holiday tradition. With extensive tips on menu planning, decorating, shopping, cleaning and more, we've got you covered from now 'til leftovers.

There can you find an heirloom turkey? Where are cranberries grown? How much food do Americans normally waste? We've got the answers and lots more questions about Thanksgiving in our quiz: Do You Give Thanks With Minimal Impact? Click on over to get started and learn tons of great green knowledge along the way.

Back To Top Λ

Top Green Thanksgiving Day Tips

  1. Know your guests
    For most families, tradition sets the precedent for who shares the Thanksgiving meal and a simple phone call can easily confirm the details. But a hand-lettered invitation (on recycled paper, of course), or even a clever Evite can set the tone for a truly special event. Whatever your mode of communication, make sure you determine any special food needs your guests might have. Are they vegan? Vegetarian? Pescetarian? Do they have food allergies? Simple questions now can save you a world of last-minute headaches. Timeline: Two weeks out. 

  2. Plan your meal
    A simple rule of thumb for a traditional Thanksgiving meal is to include a main course, four sides and dessert. Some families add a soup at the start and a salad at the end (or vice-versa). Traditionally the main course is a turkey, but it can translate to a poached or grilled whole salmon for a pescetarian meal, or tofurky or vegetarian casserole for vegans and vegetarians -- check in with Emeril to get some ideas and recipes for the big meal. Luckily, the spread is so broad that you can easily include something for everyone. Write down your selections, then make a shopping list, separating it into items that you can shop for in advance, and those you need to buy the day before. If you want a heritage and/or organic turkey, make sure you get your order in before they sell out. Timeline: Two weeks out. 

  3. Shop for your staples and non-perishable items
    Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to hit up your local farmers' market for organic, locally-sourced produce. Since these traditional recipes typically rely on food that's in season, you can pretty much find everything you need in the way of root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams) as well as specialty items like honey or even beeswax candles to adorn your table. Timeline: One week out.

  4. Clean house
    Maybe you're doing it, maybe you have help. Either way, using non-toxic cleaners can make your house sparkle without chemicals. Run out of sink or tub scrub? Mix up some baking soda and water (here's a recipe we like). Wondering how to get your windows squeaky clean? Try vinegar and newspaper. These household staples really work-and you won't run the risk of inciting a synthetic-fragrance induced allergy attack in your guests. Timeline: The day before.

  5. Decorate lightly
    This is the fun part. Think outside the box when it comes to decorating your home. Eschew the traditional wreath in favor of one made from living, organically grown succulents and cacti. Recycle old wrapping paper or the funny pages and cut them into snowflakes to put in the window or hang from thread over your table. Make your table arrangements from organic flowers, or collect bouquets from your yard or neighborhood (adding herbs like rosemary and lavender make for gorgeous, fragrant bouquets). Got kids (or kids coming to the party)? Enlist them to set your table and place your candles. Timeline: The day before.

  6. Shop for Perishables and Pick Up Your Turkey
    Veggies, breads (unless you bake your own), and other perishables should be picked up from your local farmers' market; depending on what day(s) of the week it's open, you may have to fudge the timeline just a bit, and for most things, that's okay. Root vegetables, squash, most fruits and other seasonal meal items will survive just fine for a few extra days. If you're planning a mixed green salad or other highly perishable dish, you might have to bite the bullet and go to your local co-op or organic grocer. Timeline: One to four days before.

  7. Pre-fab as much prep as you can
    If you're making stuffing, pre-mix it. If you're mashing potatoes, skin and quarter them (if you leave them in a tub of cool water, they'll be fine overnight). The turkey can be brined or prepped with olive oil, salt and pepper and left in the refrigerator until the next morning. Pies can be baked and set on a shelf. The more you get done today, the less you'll have to worry about on the big day. Timeline: The day before.

  8. Cook like you've never cooked before
    But don't just go into it blindly: You're orchestrating a symphony of tastes! Sit down with a pencil and paper and plot out your finish times so that you know when your dishes need to go into the over in order to come out at relatively the same time. But don't stress the timing too much: Thanksgiving is more about the experience of sharing a meal together, and less about that meal being piping hot. Make sure you build in a little time to relax before your guests arrive. Light your candles. Sample the organic wine. Pat yourself on the back. Timeline: On the big day.

  9. Give thanks
    Many families say a traditional prayer led by the head of the table before eating. Some go around the table, with each member saying what he or she is giving thanks for this year. Whatever happens at your table, make sure you're conscious of the religious considerations of your guests. Timeline: On the big day.

  10. Dispose of the leftovers
    Scrape the plates and suds up-but wait! Is that a leek you're tossing in the trash? Even if you don't compost, you can separate the green scraps from the rest and toss them in your leaf bin. And you're recycling your plastic bottles and aluminum cans, right? Timeline: On the big day (and maybe one day after).

Back To Top Λ

Green Thanksgiving Day: By the Numbers

  • 63.3 percent: Percentage of the vote that passed Proposition 2 in California this month, which prohibits the confinement of farm animals--including turkeys--so that they cannot turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs, according to Ballotpedia.

  • 1 pound: Amount of food, per person, that is the recommended serving size of your main course--turkey, tofurky, or whatever you're serving--plus another half-pound for leftovers.

  • 180 degrees: The reading, on your thermometer, that indicates your turkey is done when placed in the thigh; also, be sure the juices should run clear, not red.

  • 496 people: Residents of Turkey, TX, the most populous of the three places in the U.S. named after the bird.

  • 5 ounces: The limit for a standard glass of wine: Men should have no more than two servings per day, and one for women, according to The Wine Institute (though perhaps these standards don't have to apply on Thanksgiving).

  • 87 percent: Percentage of the world's printing and writing papers consumed by industrialized nations, which make up only 20 percent of the world's population.

  • 200: Foods that are threatened by extinction in America.

  • $6: The cost of a half-pound box of organic arugula delivered to your door from Boxed Greens.

  • $1.89: The cost of enough organic arugula seed to last the season, from NeSeed.

Sources: Ballotopedia, Whole Foods Market, Infoplease,, The Wine Institute, Environmental Paper Project, Slow Food International, NeSeed.

Back To Top Λ

Green Thanksgiving Day: Getting Techie

Salmonella affects 1.4 million people every year, according to Here's how to stay safe: With a frozen turkey, defrost your turkey in the fridge, not on the counter. For a fresh turkey, remove innards immediately, rinse with cold water and keep it in the fridge until you're ready to cook. Wash your hands with soap before and after touching raw poultry. Designate a cutting board and knife for poultry, and wash them immediately with soap and hot water after use. Finally, don't let the bird sit on the counter: Once you've served it, refrigerate as soon as possible, and eat the leftovers within a few days. We've got some more tips for a clean, safe Thanksgiving.

Where do turkeys come from?
Turkeys are indigenous to North America, but today's turkeys are deficient in one glaring way: They can't reproduce. They've been bred to produce the most meat at the least cost, and are now dependent on human intervention to fertilize their eggs. Heritage turkeys, in contrast, mate naturally, live outdoors and grow slowly. And, according to those in the know, they also taste better. Sustainable Table has the full story on heritage breeds, and Slow Food USA has a list of farms that sell heritage turkeys.

Organic, cage-free, free-range.the many designations of a green turkey
Organic turkeys are fed with grains grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers (yum!).
Vegetarian-fed turkeys are fed strictly vegetarian diet. These birds cannot go outside on pasture since foraging for "bugs" is not considered a vegetarian diet.
Cage-free turkeys are not confined to cages, but do not necessarily have ready access to outside.
"Free range" turkeys are not confined to cages, and have access to the outside, which doesn't necessarily mean that they take advantage of this "free"-dom--turkeys can "free-range" on sand, dirt or even concrete.

Pastured turkeys are housed and/or ranged on pasture, with grass, legumes and insects comprising a significant portion of their diet. As such, they may or may not be "organic."
Day range pastured turkeys are free to range outside in large rotating fenced pasture during the day, and are housed inside a permanent or semi-permanent coop at night, with an open floor (no cages).
Local Harvest has a database of farms with these (and more) various turkey options.

Back To Top Λ

Where to Get Thanksgiving Day Turkey, Food & Fixins

Pre-Holiday Preparation
Evite Online Invitations are a good, green way to spread the word about your celebration; if you prefer snail mail, check out Red Stamp Recycled Paper Holiday Invitations.

Get decorating with succulent and cactus wreaths from Wisteria Lane Flowers and organic cut flowers from Organic Bouquet.

Thanksgiving Food and Fixin's
Heritage Foods Turkeys, Mary's Free Range Turkeys, and Local Harvest are solid sources for eco-friendly turkeys.

Local Harvest can help you source the rest of your big meal locally, too.

Diamond Organics Home Food Delivery and Boxed Greens Organic Food Delivery can help you get green foods if you can't find it near you.

Happle's USDA Certified Organic Pies combine two of our favorite words: organic and pie.

Back To Top Λ

Green Thanksgiving Day: From the Archives

Dig deeper into a green Thanksgiving with these articles from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Food and Drink
Cruise through our buying guide for green Thanksgiving turkeys and learn how to make a fabulous Thanksgiving turkey.

Emeril has some tips and recipes for a local thanksgiving on a special holiday episode of Emeril Green.

While you're at it, dig in to these tips on how have a healthy Thanksgiving and why we should all celebrating Thanksgiving and what it stands for.

Get the scoop on organic food and local food from TreeHugger's Green Basics series.

How to Go Green: Dinner Parties and How to Go Green: Eating explore the ins and outs of enjoying sustainable food, and How to Go Green: Wine has the goods on sustainable wine, and our buying guide for organic cabernet sauvignon will help you pick a tasty organic bottle of this big red.

Cleaning up
How to Go Green: Cleaning will help you clean it all up when you're all done.

Composting Basics: Compost Without A Yard will show you how to effectively recycle your organic waste without the benefit of extra real estate, or a huge compost pile out back.

Take action
If you're fond of the (delicious) gobbling birds, why not adopt a turkey?

Turkey not your favorite? Here's how to become a vegetarian.

And, if you're looking to add another Thanksgiving tradition, consider adding Buy Nothing Day to your holiday celebration.

Back To Top Λ

Further Reading on a Green Thanksgiving Day

Learn more about enjoying a green Thanksgiving with these worthwhile sources.

Two excellent sources for a vegetarian Thanksgiving come from and

iVillage has some tips on how to have an organic Thanksgiving.

Get more tips on an organic celebration from a site whose name says it all: Organic Thanksgiving.

Nell Newman has some more ideas for an organic Thanksgiving.

Learn more about heritage turkeys and Thanksgiving from Slow Food, and, while you're at it, get some info on making your Thanksgiving a Slow Food Thanksgiving.

How to Go Green: Thanksgiving Day
[by Rachel Sarnoff]

Related Content on